Insecure Worlds On Screens: Early Ethnographic Cinema In France And The United States, 1896-1931

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Early ethnographic cinema is a doubly condemned genre. These films emerged in a moment of cinematic history that scholars have had to vigorously defend against accusations of incompetence and archival excess. They were also born of the nineteenth-century cultural fascination with racial difference and the ever-expanding reach of Western imperialism. Post-war visual anthropologists distance themselves from their pre-war counterparts, arguing that early ethnographic cinema lacks not only technical sophistication, but also a necessary dose of self-reflection. For film scholars, the very term "early ethnographic cinema" has become a kind of shorthand for a regime of visual oppression and capture. This dissertation examines the broad field of French and American ethnographic cinema produced by government agencies, academic institutions, and commercial film companies between the advent of cinema and the early nineteen thirties. Looking beyond and well before the most widely-cited example of this cinematic mode -- Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) -- I reconsider the boundaries of early ethnographic cinema and challenge its pervasive dismissal as a hegemonic ideological and narrative force. Through close readings of the Lumières' Village Ashantis series, the Albert Kahn photo-film archives, and a wide range of expedition films, I argue that early ethnographic cinema renders visible the discursive and disciplinary instabilities of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ethnographic practice. Early ethnographic cinema demands a shift from linguistic signs to indexical images, from the armchair to the field, from the pen to the camera. It contributes yet another order of displacement to a discipline founded upon geographic dislocations and decenterings. The incoherent or unstable quality of the ethnographic image owes not to the failures of untrained filmmakers or the primitivity of the earliest cinematic forms, but to the combined demands of ethnographic practice and visual reproduction. Cameras in hand, filmmakers went in search of the non-self, the unfamiliar, and the faraway. An insecure world of irrepressible motion and infinite difference stretched out before their lenses.

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